Monday, December 29, 2014

Vanishing Innocence

When my boys were infants, you "oohed" and "awed" over them. You admired their chubby cheeks, their dark eyes and their curly hair. You would stop me in the grocery store to coo at them and smile. How cute those Black babies are!

At three years old, the cuteness has begun to fade for you. You cast an inquisitive look in their direction, but you rarely stop to talk to them or comment. You keep a close eye on them at the playground because you know how "they" can be and you are ready to protect your own child from "them".

Implicit bias is already at work at this age. Black boys are far more likely to be suspended from preschool than other children - for the same, or lesser, undesirable behaviors. (Read HERE about this.) Thus begins the school-to-prison pipeline. (More about that HERE.)

In Five Years, at Eight Years Old...
You will no longer see them as innocent children. They will have passed from the stage of childhood innocence. You see, once Black boys reach about 8 years old people no longer see them as innocent children. Yet, people will continue to see White boys as innocent children for a few more years. This is in part due to a wrong perception of age. For some reason, people perceive Black children to be older than they actually are and people have implicit biases about Black children being more disrespectful, more often trouble-makers, violent. (Read HERE and HERE for more about that.)

You will hold my boys to a higher standard in your mind because they will appear to be several years older than they are. When you look at them, instead of seeing eight year old boys, you will perceive them to be 10 or 12 years old. But they will still be doing what 8 year olds do. Their childish behaviors will confirm your suspicions that "they" are unruly, lawless, irresponsible people because you will be expecting them to act a few years older than they are.

At this point, my boys will already have experienced racism time and again. (You can read a story about that HERE.) It will become a normal part of their life. Perhaps not so much as blatant racism, though there will be that too, but also in microaggressions, implicit bias, and systemic racism. (You can search those terms online to learn more.)

In Ten Years, at Thirteen Years Old...
You will suspect them of wrongdoing, no matter what they are actually doing. You will cast furtive glances towards them when in a store to make sure they are not stealing anything, though their behavior has given no indication that such a thing is likely. You will feel safer when store clerks follow them around the store. You will be nervous for them to be near your children. When you see them with a group of friends you will assume they are up to no good.

At this age, my sons will be seen as adults. No longer children. They may be perceived to be 20 years old at this point (7 or 8 years older than they actually are). They may be handcuffed or arrested for minor violations. They may be harshly treated or beaten by police. It will be "justified" because they will be perceived to be resisting arrest when in fact they are just scared children. They may be shot to death by police for playing with something that someone believes looks like a gun. Because, if I can help it, they will never, ever play with an actual toy gun. We know how that can turn out. (Read about that HERE and HERE.)

In Fifteen Years, at Eighteen Years Old...
You will clutch your purse a little tighter as they pass you on the sidewalk. You will feel a quickening of your pulse. You will breathe a small sigh when they have passed by. In your car, you will lock your door and make sure to not slow down near them.

You will see them wearing a hoodie and suspect they are up to no good. You will see them in a rich neighborhood and "know" they do not belong there and will call the police to report the suspicious activity -- Black men walking in a rich neighborhood.

By now, my boys will have become the "scary Black man". They will be full-grown, tall, broad-shouldered. If they are not clean shaven and dressed in a suit they will be called "thugs". Even if they are clean shaven and dressed in suits, they will be suspect. They will be pulled over by police repeatedly though they have broken no laws. They will be mistaken for suspects because they "fit the description" of a Black male.

They will be on their way to college if they have not become victims of the school-to-prison pipeline or "Shoot First, Get Away with it Later". The numbers of young Black men being shot and killed by police are alarming, but more frightening is that these officers are not being held accountable for killing unarmed people. Even if they will be on their way to college, they will still be seen as ignorant, uneducated, lazy, irresponsible.

In Twenty Years, at Twenty-Three Years Old...
Because of the color of their skin, many assumptions will come to mind as you see them, not based on any knowledge of who they are or what they are doing. You will assume that they are criminals and violent. You will assume that they have several kids with different women that they may not even know about and are certainly not supporting. You will assume they are lazy and irresponsible and looking for a handout. You will pass over them when hiring, more likely to choose a White man with a police record even if my boys have a college degree and have never been arrested or had any trouble with the law.

You will be afraid.

You will fear my sons because of the color of their skin. You may not even realize that you do.

And while you are busy seeing what is not there, you will miss what is.... but if you looked, really looked at my boys you would see...
and so much more.

Next time you walk past a Black man, remember, that is my son. Look past your preconceived ideas and the stereotypes you have been fed. Look past the media bias and the lies you have heard. Look at the man. Change your mind about Black men. Before too long, my little boys will be Black men. And they will be passing you on the street. And they will see how you react to them.

Because if you do not change your mind about Black men, chances are, by their mid-twenties, they will have been arrested and incarcerated, or killed. Because they are Black.

Your perceptions matter. The negative perceptions of Black men feed into the system of racism. You do not have to be a racist to contribute to the systemic racism in our country.

By changing your mind about what you think you know about Black men, you will be making a difference for my boys and for all the Black boys who will all too soon be Black men.

Articles linked in this post:

My son has been suspended 5 times. He's 3.

Stop the School-to-Prison Pipeline

The Day Cute and Brown Dissolved into Black

Black Boys Viewed as Older, Less Innocent Than Whites, Research Finds

A Little White Girl's First Experience of Racism

Cleveland police officer shot Tamir Rice immediately after leaving moving patrol car

Police thought 12-year-old Tamir Rice was 20 when they shot him. This isn't uncommon.

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